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A new study casts some doubt on the notion than any level of alcohol consumption during pregnancy is harmful to a child's neuropsychological development.
The study of more than 10,000 children tracked until age 7 found that those born to mothers who were light drinkers during pregnancy -- one or two drinks per week -- were not at increased odds for mental deficits.
"There appears to be no increased risk of negative impacts of light drinking in pregnancy on behavioral or [mental] development in 7-year-old children," study co-author Yvonne Kelly said in a news release from BJOG: An International Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, which will publish the findings April 17.
One U.S. expert said this type of information is useful, although the jury may still be out on the issue.
"The problem is that no one knows the exact amount of alcohol consumption that is safe, so many doctors in this country choose a conservative approach and tell their patients not to drink any alcohol," said Dr. Keith Eddleman, director of obstetrics at the Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City.
Previous research has linked heavy drinking during pregnancy with health and developmental problems in children, but questions remain about the effects of light drinking during pregnancy.
This study included about 10,500 children in the United Kingdom who were born between 2000 and 2002 and were assessed when they were 7 years old. The children underwent tests for math, reading and spatial skills and their parents and teachers provided information about the youngsters' social and emotional behavior.
The mothers of the children included those who never drank (about 13 percent), those who did not drink during pregnancy (57 percent), those who were light drinkers during pregnancy (about 23 percent) and those who were heavier drinkers during pregnancy (7 percent).
Children born to light drinkers actually had fewer behavioral problems than those born to mothers who didn't drink during pregnancy, the research found, but the overall difference was not enough to be statistically significant.
The researchers also found that children born to light drinkers had better results on the math, reading and spatial skills tests than those born to nondrinkers. Again, the overall difference was not significant.
Kelly stressed, however, that long-term data is still needed. "While we have followed these children for the first seven years of their lives, further research is needed to detect whether any adverse effects of low levels of alcohol consumption in pregnancy emerge later in childhood," she said.
For his part, Eddleman said doctors and most patients have so far erred on the side of caution when it comes to such an important issue. But he said a more nuanced view may be emerging.
"It's been known for decades that heavy drinking during pregnancy on a regular basis can lead to significant problems for your baby, the most notable of which is Fetal Alcohol Syndrome," he said.
"Doctors have also known that an occasional drink during pregnancy is probably not a problem for your baby, especially if it is after the first trimester," he said. "This is based on the observation that the incidence of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome in countries where light alcohol consumption with dinner is commonplace and is no different from the incidence of the same disorder in countries where any alcohol consumption during pregnancy is considered taboo."
Eddleman said the new study "begins to provide some objective information on this issue."
The March of Dimes has more about alcohol and pregnancy.